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Missing Flight MH370: Are we Obsessed with Mystery?

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Like millions of others, I still find myself addicted to news updates in the hope missing Malaysian Flight MH370 will have been found. As we enter the seventh week since it went missing, my intrigue, concern, and speculations about what may have happened have reached the point of obsession. It's a mystery in the truest sense of the word, and for me it feels like being partway through a gripping and terrifying novel, but also knowing there may never be an ending, as if the story has been left unfinished by the author in a cruel plot twist.

But why are we still so fascinated by the fate of this plane and the 239 people on board? It's human nature to seek resolution, of course, but is it clues and developments we're pursuing when we tune in for our news channel fixes, or do we prefer to leap straight to the last page for an outcome? What makes this story, and other mysteries like it, so compelling?

The truthful answer to this question is undoubtedly uncomfortable. On the one hand we all desperately want to know what happened to the airliner, and we want the torture for the waiting families to finally be over. The "what-ifs" for the rest of us then follow. It's our personal way of making sense of the unknown. I'm a fearful flyer--what if this happened to me? My son's booked a flight next week--what if his plane goes missing too? What if we learn it was terrorist-linked and it affects my country?

These thoughts allow us, as helpless onlookers, to empathize with those directly involved. We go through the same process when we read books, seeking ways in which we can relate to the characters and their situations. I believe it's this identification with the plight of others that keeps us turning the pages when we read--and similarly keeps us glued to the news bulletins. It's easy to believe It could have been someone from my family on that plane. Our imaginations help us make sense of the unimaginable.

And it doesn't take much to cause these spikes of empathy, either. When I think back to the early days of the search, I remember a brave yet distraught wife waiting for news of her husband who was on the plane, a bag already packed for him with a fresh set of clothes because he would feel dirty by now, she told the interviewer. It sparks the thought Would I have shown such courage if my spouse were on board? We can't help but wonder how we'd react in the same situation. We can't help the huge lumps in our throats, or try to understand how the families' hearts must leap at every single development, such as the underwater "pings" picked up earlier this month.

I used to pilot planes myself and, ironically, I'm now a rather nervous flyer. My own empathy therefore spans both the pilots' perspective--were they overpowered by hijackers, beaten by mechanical failure, or were they part of the mystery themselves?--as well as that of the terrified passengers. How must they have been feeling when they realized something was amiss? We can speculate all we like, but all these questions, and many, many others, still remain unanswered. It's the not-knowing that keeps our intrigue levels on red alert.

But once we've discovered the ending to a story, however, our thoughts and discussions surrounding it naturally change. The mystery is, essentially, over. Conversations become truth-based rather than relying on guesswork. We weave what we once speculated with new-found fact, with some people perhaps having correctly guessed the twist all along. Questions arise, no doubt for many months afterwards, and debates take place--from governments to airline officials to family dinner tables. It's the point of a book group discussion, after all--thrashing out how well the author handled the story, the twist, somehow making sense of it, before moving on to the next book, or the next mysterious story stealing the headlines.

But this missing airliner is no work of fiction. It is a real life nightmare for the families, and it's still playing out. As the search hones in on a six square mile area of ocean 1200 miles west of Perth, Australia, as we nervously wait for news of the black box or a wreckage, or even a floating suitcase, the U.S. Navy's deep sea vehicle Bluefin-21 scours the sea for answers. Will this be the week we get them?

And until we know the truth, the rest of us will continue to speculate, desperate for resolution. Passenger terrorists, pilot political associations, government cover-ups and conspiracies are all in the mix. There is an ending to this story, but as things stand, there is no peeking to the last page. The only ones to know for sure what happened are those on board.

So while we wait, while we maintain the vigil of daily news-watching, we still have the one thing left that fuels the obsession and keeps the mystery alive. And that is hope. Hope is the key to a happy ending; hope is still being able to nervously turn every fearful page, praying the outcome, if and when it happens, will be a positive one: that by some incredible twist of fate, everyone will be found alive. Until we know for sure, it's all we have, it's what the rest of us have in common with those waiting for loved ones, and as long as it lasts, it keeps us all addicted.

Samantha Hayes is the author of the new book Until You're Mine.